I’ve spent a long time in leadership. But, right now, in my two major contexts I have no leadership position. Leadership is more than this, of course, as my class now knows well after two weeks of lectures with me. For leadership is process and person, perhaps even before it is position. And though I have no position, yet I can engage in leadership as process. I can influence others towards an end. I can be a leader.
Yet whilst position is not everything, it is nevertheless something.
Leadership in the church will always be positional to one extent or another. One will have position, another will not. Once I had leadership position. Now I do not. And with positional power comes institutional authority.
Such power and related authority does not, of course, undermine the personal authority which I carry and which comes from the use of personal power in a way which influences others. Indeed, today in my contexts I carry more personal authority than I have ever known, thanks to the one who gives to his people spheres of activity and the authority to operate within them. Yet this personal authority is not an institutional one. I am not a positional leader in either of my contexts.
With this comes an interesting challenge. For I believe there comes a time when, full of our own personal authority, God calls us to submit to those with positional authority over us. And the one does not negate the other. Perhaps, even, it is the fullest expression of my personal God-given authority when I submit to another who holds that positional authority. For I am submitting to the one as to God, so Paul tells me.
In one of my contexts I had an interesting conversation this week. A conversation about a power move which a positional leader was perceived, by my friend, to have made in a public setting. The line had been drawn. Not, I thought, with the same definition with which I have seen that leader draw it before. But, nevertheless, it had been drawn and I had seen it happen. My friend was confused by it and perhaps a little frustrated or concerned, for he did not like the decision which had been made nor the way in which authority to make that decision had been exercised.
In another of my contexts, also this week, I saw a different power move, a deliberate exercise of authority. This time it was done for my blessing and my protection. And though it was for good, a self-possessed person who has been used to positional power and to a high level of self-determination could have pushed against this power move. For it was being done to me.
In the first context, there was no explanation given for the apparently abrupt way in which discussion was closed down and decision-making authority exercised. There was not even deliberate referencing of the fact that this was an exercise of authority. It simply happened. And so we had a choice, those of us who were in that room. We could rail against the decision and the fact that conversation had been shut down such that it was simple authority-exercise, not influence, in the end which prevailed.
We could rail or we could submit.
And in the second context, where authority was deliberately referenced, I too could rail or I could submit.
In both cases, I believe that the life of the Spirit calls for submission.
Not always. Not indiscriminately. But more often, by far, than I would like to believe.
For I and my friend are critical thinkers. We are not used to accepting without question the authority of others. If eventually we accept what you say, it is likely to be because you have influenced us to believe that you are right. Not because we have accepted an intrinsic authority attributable to your position. We do not easily submit.
And if this leader in the first context were to continue operating only in the realm of positional authority rather than influence, if they were always to enforce by position those things in relation to which they were unable to win our hearts first, then that leader would likely not last long. For there is only so many times that authority can be exercised outside of either mutuality or coercion. Coercion is really not an option in Christian leadership: it runs too close to spiritual abuse for that. And mutuality requires trust, the winning of my heart to yours. Without either mutuality or coercion, there will eventually be authority breakdown.
Yet I also believe, and said to my friend, that submission to a leader as to God means, if necessary, submission without the need for either mutuality or coercion to be in play. And though submission can become inappropriate as a response where a leader is grossly exceeding their God-given authority, or misusing it on a consistent basis, this is perhaps rarely my most pressing problem. For my problem is more often that I do not easily submit.
It is this lack of practice at submitting, the reality for more of us – especially those in Christian ministry – than we like to admit, which made the authority dynamic in the second context so arresting to me. For I watched this second leader exercise authority, first over others for my protection and then over me.
And it took my breath away.
Because it was stunningly beautiful. Because it was done in love and a humility which in no way undermined the exercise of that authority.
I have always known that to be under human authority is releasing. It’s beautiful and good when the one with positional authority honours God above all and loves his people with that pure love which is not self-seeking. I have known this in principle, even taught it. I have deliberately been active in pursuing those people in my life who have the wisdom and the fierceness really to see me and to speak the hard words which I have needed to hear. Yet even these invitations to a place of authority in my life have been different. For I initiated them, gave permission.
And so, whilst I have known being under human authority in principle and I have known being under human authority by invitation, I have known being under institutional authority so much less. For so many of us in the church, this is true, whatever the structures allegedly in place around us. We do not easily submit because we have never seen submission’s beauty. Maybe because we have only seen coercive authority, maybe because God-given authority has been exceeded or misused around us. Or just maybe, perhaps, because those who had authority in relation to us were never brave enough to claim it, having themselves never seen the beauty of authority exercised well.
This week, I had a revelation. And its purity took my breath away.
For whereas once the beauty of human authority was to me only principle, God opened my eyes. Through that second leader’s words, I saw right submission’s absolute joy.
What about you? How do you relate with human authority and have you yet found submission’s joy?